Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Thank You!

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to win a prize in a lovely giveaway hosted by Ingrid at Fashion is My Muse. To mark her 350th post and second blogging anniversary, Ingrid invited her readers to tell her about their favourite post of hers in order to be in the race to win. Imagine how thrilled I was to discover that I was a winner! Yesterday my parcel arrived, and from within I pulled a set of notecards and two gorgeous textile pieces featuring an eighteenth century lady and gentleman. Ingrid you see, is a lady of many talents; a Toronto based artist who creates meaningful, beautiful pieces that resonate and delight. Fashion really is her muse, and in both her art and her blog, Ingrid delivers thoughtful and perceptive commentary about the meaning and power of clothing and it's links with our identity. If this interests you as much as it does me, then I urge you to visit Ingrid's blog and follow links to her art from there, too. 

(And if you happen to be in Toronto, Ingrid's next show, All is Vanity, is running between the 22nd January and 13th February 2011 at The Loop Gallery, 1273 Dundas Street West). 

Ingrid, thank you so much for my prizes; they will be displayed with pride. In return, I give you wine and dahlias (in photographic form!)

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Pastel Hero

In the eighteenth century portrait artists' hall of fame, the names you're most likely to hear are Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, and justifiably so: they were the painters of choice to the rich and famous of eighteenth century society. Their likenesses were highly sought after and their respective businesses boomed as aristocrats and actresses alike flocked to their salons to be painted. Yet in the sea of eighteenth century portraitists who have become half-forgotten through the passing of time, there is an unsung hero and champion of the delicate art of the pastel. 

Jean-Étienne Liotard, Self Portrait, 1773
His name was Jean-Étienne Liotard; an unassuming looking Swiss-born artist who studied in France and Italy. Throughout his career, he enjoyed remarkably prestigious patronage, painting and drawing the likes of the Pope and the Austrian royal family and travelling the length and breadth of Europe, dressed in his favourite Turkish costumes.

Maria Johanna Gabriela of Austria, 1762
Drawing with pastels is difficult to get right. I've tried it many times myself and never been completely happy with the results. Liotard succeeded where many before and since have failed: his drawings have a lightness of touch but are also full of depth. The above portrait of Marie Antoinette's older sister (sometimes marked as a portrait of Marie Antoinette herself) shows Liotard's skills to great effect. The whole sketch jumps from the screen, from the row of silken bows to the softly rouged cheeks.

Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry, 1749
Looking at this image of Maria Gunning dressed in fantastical "oriental" costume, you would be forgiven for thinking that the medium used is not pastel at all. With skilful shading and blending, Liotard created remarkable likenesses. To my modern eye, his portraits have a photo-realism in a time when the camera was over a hundred years away into the future.

The Chocolate Girl, 1743-5
Perhaps the most well known of Liotard's pastel drawings is that of The Chocolate Girl. His model was not an illustrious figure, but Liotard has rendered her beautifully and with great care, from the smooth texture of her skin to the creases in her apron. Delicacy with substance and an eye for tiny detail, Liotard's images remain etched in my mind long after my eyes have stopped looking at them.

All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010


I'm going to mention the "C" word now. Yes, the "C" word. Christmas. The great British high street would have you believe that it's been the season since October at least, but for my own part, I've only started to think about it with any seriousness over the past few days. 

Parties and Christmas go hand in hand; some small, yet some large and extravagant and all filled with too much rich food and drinks you wouldn't consider at any other time of the year (sweet sherry anyone?) I've always wanted to either host or attend a Masked Ball, dreaming of gorgeously decorated masks and elegant costumes. Masquerades, both public and private, were immensely popular affairs during the eighteenth century; parties of spectacle and excess and of sublime and ridiculous costumes.

Nowadays, masked balls are usually a Christmas event only, in the form of annual winter functions and charity galas. So, if you're lucky enough to be going along to one this year, you might just be in need of a little inspiration. Enter model-of-the moment Lara Stone (photographed for Vogue Paris' 90th Anniversary October issue) and the bonkers-but-brilliant Lady Gaga. 

(L) Lara Stone for Vogue Paris, October 2010 Issue. (R) Lady Gaga
at the Brit Awards, February 2010.
If your party calls for fancy dress, then vertiginous hair is one possibility as sported by Lara Stone and Lady Gaga, but if it's a little more of a restrained event then a stylish mask is the best nod to eighteenth century glamour (better to leave your Gaga-style meat dress and telephone hat at home). I came across Nottingham based mask-designer Samantha Peach the other day and have been happily browsing through her creations ever since. The following is a selection of my favourite designs which are more than a little eighteenth century inspired...

Plain Black Domino Mask
For minimal tastes, a classically shaped Domino style mask will have other party-goers wondering who the mysterious stranger in black is...

Silver Lace "Belle of the Ball" Mask
A plume of ostrich feathers could help you channel your inner Georgian trend-setter...

Marie Antoinette Venetian Mask
...while a touch of ivory Nottingham lace and beadwork might make you feel like royalty...

Oriental Venetian Mask, Limited Edition Design
Flame coloured silk in a simple shape will make you stand out from the crowd...

"Dorothy" Red Glitter Venetian Mask
...while a mix of red glitter and organza ribbon will cause scandalised whisperings about the scarlet woman...

Dr. Parnassus Mask
....and finally, if you enjoy a good conversation piece and a comedy nose, you could always opt for the father of all Venetian Carnevale masks...

My only wish is that I had a masquerade to go to!

For prices and more masks, go to Samantha Peach's website. All mask images courtesy of Samantha Peach, images of Lara Stone and Lady Gaga courtesy of stylefrizz.com.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Eleven. Eleven. Eleven

Britannia Salutes the Fallen; Centotaph, Staffordshire.
Words are often used to remember; speeches often written to honour the fallen.
Yet sometimes, silence is the most powerful rememberance of all.
At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month we stop to be still and quiet. We bow our heads and remember; we never forget.

Photo by me.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The Fifth Of November: What We Actually Remember

Guy Fawkes Night may have been a total weather-washout in my part of the world, but as it was a Friday, the celebrations extended well into the weekend. For my own part, it was marked in two ways: a huge public bonfire and fireworks display and also by an impromptu display at my cousin's eighteenth birthday party. I've done my fair share of trudging through muddy fields in the past few days, and was glad of strong boots and a hat that covered my ears. The scent of gunpowder clung to the night air; thick with smoke and mist and punctuated with the whistling, screeching and banging of fireworks.

It seems more than a little odd to celebrate an event with the lighting of a large fire, yet it is a traditional English form of celebration that has deep-reaching roots into ancient times. I'm not exactly sure what a love of fire-lighting and sparkly explosives says about a collective national identity, but I'm going to say it's a good thing!

To be a Catholic in England in 1605 was against the law. Fervent Catholics took their faith underground, and an extreme few planned ways to stage a coup in which the Protestant King James I would be killed and replaced with a new Catholic monarch.

Following the discovery and failure of the conspirators' plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament and with it, the King himself, ordinary English people in towns and villages around the country marked the failure with the lighting of bonfires. Sensing an opportunity, parliament later passed the Thanksgiving Act, in which it decreed that every November the 5th should be marked with the lighting of fires (not to mention mandatory church attendance). 

And so, today we still celebrate Guy Fawkes Night because the plot failed, not because the plot was ever entertained in the first place, and it is a tradition that has endured over the decades. It's observance has waxed and wained, through civil war and interregnum and beyond until the scapegoat, Guy Fawkes, has become less vilified and something more of a romantic anti-hero.

Photos by André.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Remember, Remember

Engraving of the thirteen Gunpowder Plot Conspirators, Crispijin Van Der Passe.

A timely viewing of V For Vendetta last night brought about thoughts of The Gunpowder Plot and, of course, tonight's holiday - Bonfire Night. Not a holiday in the taking-an-extra-day-off-work sense of the word, but a reason to make a bonfire, light fireworks and stand around in fields or back gardens staring up at the sky. I've been studying The Gunpowder Plot in some way or another since primary school; the above engraving being the usual teaching aid of choice to point out the nefarious conspirators. I could honestly say that I've looked at this engraving virtually every year of my school-life, from the age of four to the age of eighteen, and then even again at university. It's an ingrained and deeply rooted tradition; fun, but with a sinister little kick that's quite unique.

So, on this night in 1605, the cellars of the Houses of Parliament were searched for gunpowder and Guy Fawkes was the man with the very dubious honour of being caught red-handed. He was arrested and sent to the Tower of London, where he was subsequently tortured and interrogated. The rest has gone down in the annals of history: Fawkes confessed, his co-conspirators were either killed in a gun battle or arrested and executed along with Fawkes himself.

Top: Guy Fawkes signature after torture. Bottom: His signature a few days later

Most interesting for me is the mystery which still surrounds the anonymous "tip-off" letter that led to the uncovering of the plan. Some historians believe the culprit to be Francis Tresham, a named conspirator in Guy Fawkes' confession. It is certainly curious that although Tresham was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower, he was not executed. It is also suspected by some that his death, attributed to natural causes, may have actually been caused by poison. Hundreds of years later, the plot is still as thick as ever...

Have a great weekend, whether it be firework-filled or not!
All images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Swinging Minis

Austin Showroom, 1960s
The 1960s and minis: two words that you often hear spoken together. But it's not just tiny little skirts that are synonymous with the period, but tiny little cars, too. I might not know much about cars, but I do know that one day I'm going to own a Mini. Forget the new version masquerading as a Mini under a well known German car label; it's the Austin Mini that has the real style...

Mini, 1968.
Yes, they're tiny and unfortunatley not designed with tall people in mind, but it's a perfect little car for haring around windy English country lanes. They rattle, whine, vibrate; the suspension is hard as a rock and your head's proximity with the car ceiling means that humps in the road can cause lumps on the head...but all that said, it's brilliant fun. And I want one...

Mini Cooper & Mini Cooper S, 1967.
I often see beautifully restored Minis out on the roads and they always turn my head. The design is instantly recognisable and iconic: a bulbous little head with those round headlights and petite curves. I can never decide between racing green or bright red, nor can I decide on where the Union Jack flag should go (because there has to be one somewhere)...

But I suppose that if a Union Jack on the car itself isn't possible, I could content myself with these glasses instead. Groovy!

All images courtesy of SwingingLondon via Flickr.

NB - I know that Blogger's idiosyncratic formatting issues are legendary, so wanted to know if anybody else struggles with posts that include a lot of images, like I did with this one? I finally gave it up for a lost cause after much messing around and looking at HTML codes etc, but really dislike the irratic look of certain posts. Does anybody have a quick and easy fix for the spacing around images? I would be eternally grateful! :)

Monday, 1 November 2010

The Coiffeur & The Queen

Marie Antoinette (Print), Jean-Francois Janinet, 1777, The British Museum
There are no shortage of celebrity hairdressers in today's world: hairdressers who tend to the styles of the rich and famous and who, in turn, become celebrities themselves. It may seem like a decidedly modern phenomenon in a culture of gossip magazines, reality TV shows and tabloid stars, yet it was the eighteenth century which saw the birth of the first true celebrity hairstylist; a man who enjoyed the patronage of a queen and the ensuing feeding frenzy this caused.

Simply known to his clients as Léonard, he was first introduced to Marie Antoinette in 1774 via her couturier Rose Bertin. Already a known name in French society, Léonard created the now infamous towering style known as the pouf, and thus enchanted the young French queen. As seen in the above print, the hair was combed and lifted high, not only off the forehead, but in fact, the whole head itself. Real hair was combined with false, teased around wire constructions and horse hair pads that gave the structure some integrity. Long strands were curled to hang loose over the shoulders, and the whole, teetering construction was secured with grease-like pomatum and powder. 

Marie Antoinette's wholehearted adoption of the pouf caused a sensation, as French women vied for Léonard's time and attention. Just as Rose Bertin boasted about the fashions she had presented to the queen, so too did Léonard make the most of his royal connection. Interestingly however, Léonard himself only visited the queen once a week, on Sundays; the rest of the time leaving the work to his assistant so that he was able cultivate non-royal clientele at his salon.

Reportedly arrogant and temperamental, Léonard's cutting remarks and aristocratic pretensions (it was even said that he had somehow acquired a pair of red-heeled shoes - the exclusive domain of aristocratic manhood) amused Marie Antoinette and were indulged by clients who still came back for more.

Yet by the late 1770s, there was a very distinct problem with Marie Antoinette's hair that no amount of clever arrangement could conceal. Léonard had to admit defeat: the queen's  hair was falling out. It is thought that a combination of stress and pregnancy (not to mention the application of too much heat) caused her hair to thin and shed over a number of years. In a daring move, Léonard suggested a new cropped hairstyle to his queen and she agreed: the coiffure a l'enfant was born.

The queen's dignity was maintained, Léonards reputation as an artist was once more secure and the great and the good of French feminine society? They flocked to the hairdresser's salon to emulate the latest and most fashionable look. And so, Léonard went where the likes of modern day stylists have followed...a celebrity hairdresser to the ultimate eighteenth century celebrity.

NB- It's worth noting that I have never been able to find an image of Marie Antoinette sporting her short style. Has anybody else ever come across one at all?